- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

Shortly after the Gulf War triumph by the U.S.-led coalition, President George Bush delivered a speech in which he claimed that Desert Storm had proven that the United States had kicked the Vietnam syndrome. The implication was clear. The United States now had the self-confidence to use force when circumstances called for it.
But as subsequent events were to prove, the president was wrong. The Gulf War was an anomaly involving the clear violation of one state's sovereignty by another. As events were to prove, most of the choices that the United States would face concerning the use of force in the post-Cold War world were to be nasty and brutish affairs that did not involve aggression across international borders, and therefore confronted decision makers with ambiguous choices.
David Halberstam's "War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals" is a riveting account of the interplay between U.S. foreign affairs and domestic politics. Although others have addressed parts of the story, Mr. Halberstam is the first to provide a comprehensive political history of the last decade of the 20th century. He proves beyond a doubt that during this decade, the Vietnam War continued to shape the way policy makers, both civilian and military, thought about foreign affairs.
"War in a Time of Peace" is a worthy successor to Mr. Halberstam's earlier book, "The Best and the Brightest," his classic study of those who conceived and executed the Vietnam War. He astutely describes the players in this drama President Bush the elder, President Clinton, Colin Powell, James Baker, Richard Holbrooke, Tony Lake, Les Aspin, William Perry, Wesley Clark, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and many others. He does the same with the complex array of events that occurred during the 1990s Desert Storm, the 1992 presidential campaign, Somalia, Rwanda, trouble in the Balkans, the Republican congressional landslide of 1994, Bosnia, the 1996 presidential campaign, the Monica Lewinsky affair, impeachment, and Kosovo.
But what makes this such a useful book is the way that Mr. Halberstam weaves important themes into his account civil-military relations, the changing attitudes of the American people in the aftermath of the Cold War, the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy, the competition among the players, and so forth. Although one might disagree with some of Mr. Halberstam's judgments, he is a first rate reporter. He brings the decade of the 1990s alive. His is a comprehensive account that will stand the test of time.
The main story line of the book is that for the first time in a half-century, a president attempted to place domestic politics over foreign policy. Unfortunately for Mr. Clinton and his legacy, events in the international arena did not cooperate. Almost from the beginning of his first term, he could run but he couldn't hide from events overseas. This forced him to focus on that part of his job as president in which he had the least interest and the least competence. On top of this, his foreign policy team was not the strongest in the history of the Republic some have described it as the third string of the Carter administration.
Of course, there were exceptions. Mr. Clinton's second secretary of defense, William Perry, was a very strong player, as was Richard Holbrooke, who skillfully served the administration on many occasions. Many thought that Mr. Holbrooke should have succeeded Warren Christopher as secretary of state, but because of "a formidable new force in the Democratic Party, an important network of politically active women," the president turned to Madeleine Albright.
The most interesting part of the book is Mr. Halberstam's treatment of civil-military relations. The alleged civilian-military "gap" and the increasing politicization of the officer corps have received a great deal of treatment over the past couple of years. "War in the Time of Peace" certainly validates the idea of the gap.
Most of the civilian policy makers in the Clinton administration had cut their teeth in the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Yet over time, many became advocates of military intervention and the use of force to prevent human rights abuses.
They were confronted by an officer corps that did not trust them. Even those too young to remember Vietnam thought that these "hawkish" civilians who were so eager to involve them in conflicts abroad would abandon the military if the going got tough, leaving the soldiers to twist in the wind as the military believed the civilians had done during Vietnam.
The officer corps as a whole tended to oppose the sort of "constabulary" operations that became so prevalent during the Clinton administration. In many respects, it was the military in general and the Army in particular that was casualty averse, not wanting to lose soldiers in operations that were not related to vital national interests. As a result, Mr. Halberstam shows, the Army often dragged its feet when it came to these kind of operations.
The climactic event in the book is Kosovo, where all the contradictions of post-Cold War foreign and defense policy were revealed pro-intervention activists among the civilians, reluctance on the part of the military, with the exception of the Air Force, which would be the featured actor in this operation.
Air power advocates claimed that Kosovo had vindicated a new air power paradigm based on "parallel warfare" designed to achieve decisive results through paralysis rather than annihilation or attrition. How closely did the actual application of air power against Yugoslavia match the new air power paradigm? Stealth and precision indeed reduced the number of sorties necessary to attack important targets. This had two salutary results. On the one hand, only two NATO manned aircraft were destroyed and no pilots or crews were lost to hostile action, an amazing record for a 77-day campaign. On the other, civilian casualties were low, especially when measured against ordinance delivered and targets destroyed.
But the operational requirement to minimize aircraft losses and allied casualties dictated the strategic shape of the air war. NATO aircraft flew at high altitudes and avoided strikes against Serb ground forces in Kosovo to preclude losses. Thus the non-existent NATO casualties were achieved at the cost of thousands of Kosovars butchered by Milosevic's forces and nearly a million refugees.
And the fact remains that insofar as air power prevailed against Yugoslavia, it did so the old-fashioned way by punishing the civilian population of Yugoslavia.
It did not kill them in large numbers as in World War II, but it did target the infrastructure upon which they depended. This was not paralysis as promised by the prophets of parallel war. It was attrition.
"War in a Time of Peace" ends with some thoughts about the incoming Bush administration and the world it would face. "The role of America in the post-Cold War world, which had not been clearly articulated or defined during the Clinton years, was still murky in January 2001 when the presidential guard changed. Foreign policy was not high on the political agenda, primarily because whatever the forces that might threaten the future of this country were, they were not yet visible."
Those forces became visible for all to see on Sept. 11. And Mr. Bush who, like his predecessor, came into office with a domestic agenda, will now be forced to deal with the world at large, albeit one that has come home to America. But while it was always difficult during the Clinton years to get the American people to focus on foreign affairs, that should not be a problem for the foreseeable future.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide